I owe a lot of the success I’ve had in my career to the critique I’ve had from other photographers. Since specializing though, I’ve had to unlearn many of those lessons. Specializing has proven to me that critiques from photographers are often wrong.
My first experience in critique from photographers came from the club circuit. Once a month, photographers would get together for competition night where their images would be rated and publicly critiqued. The process helped me in two ways: creating competition ready images every month was excellent practice and learning from photographers with decades of experience fast tracked my own growth.
At a similar time, I started posting my work online and asking for critiques. This proved to be a useful practice as when you asked for critique, the photographers did not hold back. I used sites like Flickr and 500px as an online substitute for the club circuit.
For the first 10 years of practicing photography, I didn't settle into any specific genre. I shot weddings, stylized portraits, landscapes, travel and even some products. The lessons came when a combination of passion and opportunity pushed me towards specializing in travel. All of a sudden, I was exposed to a different set of rules, some of them in total opposition to what I had been told by other photographers.
My first lesson was that the landscape section of my portfolio was completely inappropriate for potential clients. I was always told that cloudless skies make for boring photographs. Consequently, my portfolio was full of moody, dramatic landscapes. I would go out specifically during storms to create photographs. It should have been common sense; what tourists are going to be motivated to travel based on this sort of image? I recently had a commissioned shoot of London images where the brief dictated a gradient blue sky with no clouds. It’s more attractive to tourists.
Now that I’ve specialized in travel and architectural photography, I notice certain of my images receiving high acclaim from my clients while being criticized by other photographers. I’ve had to learn that at a certain point, you need to consider who the intended audience is for your work and how to make images that please them, even if it goes against general photography principles.
In addition to my cloud lesson, here are 9 further lessons, specific to architecture and travel that I’ve noticed are in contradiction to general photography rules:
1. Long Exposures: These look amazing because they help create images that we can’t see with our eyes. For this reason, it is also a failure as a travel image. Travel images need to be believable to the non photographer.
2. The Golden Hour: Everything looks more appealing during the golden hour. Some photographers refuse to even shoot outside of the golden hour. Recently, I woke up at 4am to photograph a building during sunrise. My client didn't like the images because of the golden color. I gave him the images from later in the day with the exact same composition and he loved them. In architectural photography, showing the "designed" color can be more important than showing the "best’ color.
3. Twilight: I’ve always been told (and believe) that buildings look best during twilight hours when it is possible to see detail in both the interior and exterior. Recently I was asked to present my portfolio at one of the world’s largest architectural practices. They invited me based on an image in my portfolio shot in the middle of a sunny day. I was told that they were tired of the moody, dramatic twilight images and wanted a friendly, daylight shoot.
4. Timing: Similarly, to point 3, travel clients like images taken during regular opening hours. They want this so that tourists aren't misled. For example, a museum exterior may look best under twilight conditions, but if it only opens from 10AM to 4PM, it is best represented with a daylight image.
5. Motion blur: Some of my travel clients can’t stand motion blur. This means that in low light, I’m best off shooting with a low aperture and high ISO. This is also true of "silky water".
6. Tight crops: Composition guidelines are secondary priorities to text/graphic placement considerations. Both travel and architectural clients often dictate compositions that photographers normally wouldn't use in order to accommodate text or graphics.
7. No People: For travel clients, when it’s possible, including people or a crowd is more desirable than an empty scene. This means that if I’m working in a city, it’s often not worth it to work during sunrise. I spent the first 10 years of my career specifically looking for empty scenes.
8. Soft Light: I’ve always been told that soft light is desirable. While this may be true for most portraits and landscapes, I often work specifically with hard light when photographing architecture. Hard light brings out the graphic elements of design which often fade away with soft light.
9. Image Quality: As photographers, we obsess about image quality. Consider the debates about gear that have gone on for years, where we argue about barely imperceptible gains in image quality. I’ve had images shot down by other photographers due to excessive noise or blocked up shadows. I’ve found that travel clients care far more about the message conveyed by the photograph rather than the image quality. Of course, image quality is important, but it should always be secondary to the message. This is something that is often lost in critique sessions.
It will always be a useful exercise to open yourself up to critique from other photographers. The practice helps sharpen your craft and fast tracks your growth. I’ve heard it said that before you can successfully break the rules, you need to know the rules. Becoming a specialist sometimes means knowingly going against these generally accepted rules, which can draw a lot of criticism. Therefore, when exposing yourself to critique, be confident in the areas where you’ve knowingly broken the rules. Ultimately, you’re not making work for other photographers.
If you’ve specialized in a genre, have you encountered any lessons that contradict generally accepted photography guidelines?